Earlier this year, a report by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation ranked the United States sixth among 40 countries and regions, based on 16 indicators of innovation-based competitiveness. What’s worse than not finishing first overall? That when ranked on a single indicator—progress made toward the new knowledge-based innovation economy over the last decade—the U.S. placed dead-last.
This news isn’t new. A landmark 2005 study sounded the warning that our country’s lead in science and technology was “eroding at a time when many other nations are gathering strength.” And long before, there were signs of complacency as we became the world’s only superpower in the post-Cold War era. While accounts vary as to the severity of this gradual innovation decline—a recent Rand Corporation report concluded that we were in “no imminent danger” of losing competitive advantage—few experts question the downward trajectory.
According to Deborah Wince-Smith, president of the Council on Competitiveness, “America leads in innovation, but is bleeding opportunities.” In 2003, the Council, comprised of leaders in business, education and labor, launched the National Innovation Initiative, a multi-year effort engaging hundreds of leaders from all walks of life to optimize society for a future in which innovation will be “the single most important factor in shaping prosperity.”
“If globalization is the new playing field, then innovation is the way you play the game in the 21st century,” proclaims its website, compete.org. “Leadership in innovation will unleash the productivity and economic growth that will underpin America’s prosperity.” Few would argue with that assessment, even if we disagree on the specific tax and regulatory mechanisms necessary to unleash such an economic elixir.
Central Illinois has put together all of the ingredients to harness innovation on a large scale. At the Peoria NEXT Innovation Center, technology start-ups mingle with talent from a top-rated university, a Fortune 50 company, the Midwest hub for agricultural research, leading hospitals and a renowned medical school. As Peoria Robotics co-founder Dr. Andy Chiou observes, “Our strength is in the collaboration…when you put everybody in a room and take down the barriers…It is much different than if…one person was at MIT and one was at Harvard. You would think that collaboration would yield tremendous output, but the reality is there are so many barriers. Yes, they can talk, but can they innovate together?”
And if you’re not a tech firm or green energy startup, just how does innovation apply to you? In today’s world, staying in business—not just starting a new business—requires new models and methods. According to “Defining Small Business Innovation”, “Many small business owners innovate on a continuous basis to survive. But rather than calling it innovation, they use words such as ‘tweak,’ ‘adjust,’ ‘improve’ and ‘change.’ They talk about improvising and trying new ideas. They describe their approaches to solving customer problems and finding new ways to do things.”
At its essence, innovation means the introduction of something new or different. The rise of global competition and technology has changed all of our lives forever, forcing changes in business operations large and small. In the 21st century, we are all innovators. We have to be—just to survive. iBi